The most unlikely and unprecedented musical endeavor I’ve come across since hearing Uri Caine’s amazing adaptations of Mahler, Bach, and Schubert, Shakers n’ Bakers (the name of a group and their eponymous first CD) straddles several universes both stylistically and conceptually. A brief note on the back of the CD explains that it is dedicated to the exploration of ‘Vision Songs’ received by women of the Shaker religious sect during ecstatic spiritual trances. Co-led by multi-reed player Jeff Lederer and vocalist Mary LaRose, Shakers n’ Bakers is the manifestation of several years of in-depth study and thought, and a CD that I have been playing on a near daily basis since I received it.
Though there are thousands of Shaker hymns and songs, the Vision Songs (also known as Gift Songs) are in a class by themselves. Often multi-sectioned, with abrupt and frequent changes in tempo, time signature, and tonal center, the songs may also feature lyrics in ‘inspired’ languages attributed by the Shakers to African, Native American, and extraterrestrial sources. While I have no idea how historically accurate Lederer and LaRose’s adaptations are, the music that they present on Shakers n’ Bakers is some of the most powerful and amazing stuff that I have heard in the 21st Century.
In an odd sort of way, the Shakers n’ Bakers synthesize the concept of music repertory with the sort of open-ended free-associative approach that sits most comfortably in the post-Ayler world of avant garde jazz. Yet, Shakers n’ Bakers are not an iconoclastic crew of turntable-toting Downtown hipsters on a mission to revolutionize Jazz-as-we-know-it. Quite the contrary - they seem to go out of their way to be bookish, homespun and un-hip. Their gently whimsical and unassuming approach seems almost dangerously low-key in today’s ultra-carnivorous mass media jungle.
The music is another story altogether - a dizzying trip through some very obscure corridors of quirky Americana. The first track - ‘Me can not wear de great long face’ - has no less than three extremely piquant melodies. Yet it is also some of the most powerful avant-jazz I’ve heard in a long time, with amazing David Moss-like extreme vocals from Miles Griffith, exultantly dynamic drumming by Alison Miller, and Lederer’s cavernous, howling tenor. ‘Hack-a-ling, Shack-a-ling’ starts off with more odd vocalizations only to morph into a funk throwdown between Lederer and Jamie Saft’s ring modulated and echoplexed Rocksichord (the same keyboard favored by Sun Ra!).
The energy level never really ebbs, even though some of the pieces have a concentrated and really beautiful meditative inner stillness (e.g., ‘Balls of Simplicity’, ‘Sojourner’s Song’). Here, and throughout the CD really, Mary LaRose’s vocals are warm and suffused with grace and humor. Many of the Vision Songs - ‘Dismission of Great I’, ‘I am Mothers’ and the amazingly powerful ‘Love and Blessing’ - have folksy, chant-like melodies, a la Stephen Foster which lend themselves really well to Lederer and LaRose’s rocking anthem type of approach (though they never really play it 100% straight!). Ornette-inspired freebop, and more of Saft’s remarkably odd keyboard conjuring, crops up in ‘From the Moon / Ine Vine Violet’. The most complex piece is the odd-metered ‘Great I, little i’, a feature for Lederer’s fiery and eloquent soprano sax. Throughout all of this, drummer Alison Miller and bassist Chris Lightcap are flat-out amazing - not only do they negotiate all of the odd twists and rhythmic modulations, they fill the music with inspired, fiery, and daring artistry.
"Shakers n’ Bakers" is a triumph of both Lederer’s and LaRose’s musical scholarship. More importantly it is a triumph of truly inspired collective music making - this is one of the best bands I have ever heard, and the whole CD literally sparkles with their energy, intuition, guts, brains, sweat, and love. If only all entertainment could be this.... entertaining. "Shakers n' Bakers" sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. I cannot wait to hear more!